A prolific and well-loved Oregon writer, Brian Doyle, died last week. Though I shared the other Portland with him for thirteen years, I didn’t know him except through his essays and fiction. He edited the University of Portland’s alumni magazine which, in the words of the Oregonian, the Portland, OR newspaper, “punched well above its weight class” by publishing fine authors from all across the country. As with so many writers whose work I love but never met, his loss leaves a hole in my literary heart. Try Mink River if you love fiction, or How the Light Gets In for his incomparable essay voice.
When he was diagnosed with the brain tumor that killed him and friend asked him what they could do, what he told them was pure Doyle: “Be tender. And laugh more.” What style and what class . . I can think of no better advice for the times we are in, or any other times, for that matter.
After attending the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance Literary Awards last week, I was reminded that one of the things I love about writing in Maine is a sense of hidden community, a knowledge that no matter what you’re writing or from where, there are people who support you, maybe without you even knowing. You may not see them or hear from your people every day but you know they’re there. Who of us hasn’t had an unexpected word of encouragement from someone who knows exactly what your bad work day is like? Or gotten a sorely needed kick in the pants?
It reminds me that, though writers spend some major part of our time worrying about whether or how often we publish, receive prizes, win grants or fellowships, that nothing about writing and publishing, here or anywhere else, is a zero-sum game. By which I mean to say, your success does not diminish the chances of my success and vice-versa. Despite what our competitive culture would have us believe, there is not a finite pool of recognition, funding, publication, or love from readers that we all are fighting over.
Sometimes that’s a hard lesson to remember. My first book (and like a first child, most likely to be near and dear, at least until there are more) Solo Act was recently nominated for an award. When I didn’t win, I confess to a momentary twinge of having lost something, until I realized I was mourning something I’d never held. In fact, once my head cleared, I recovered my original sense of elation at being nominated and was honored all over again to be in the company of writers whose work and work ethic I respect.
Beyond all the personal reasons why we write and publish is the fact that we are, as Toni Morrison says, a “necessary community,” working with language and writing to entertain, to inform, to argue, to open minds, to push back ferociously against all of the ignorance around us. And so in that context, it really doesn’t matter what your ego tells you you need to feel successful. No number of big advances, best-seller list mentions, book sales, or reader love is stronger than the fact that what we do is a cultural necessity and a gift to the world.
I wish I were selfless enough not to care at all whether I published or sold books or had millions of readers who loved my work but I try to temper my greed for all that with this fact—no matter what we write or publish, or even whether we publish, what we are doing is important and necessary work. Keep on. Be tender. And please—laugh more.